Thursday, August 19, 2010

Skills and shifting skills

Several days ago, a friend who is a librarian (but not working as one) sent me a very thoughtful note about the skills needed for the 21st century job hunt.

The day he sent it to me, I had spent a good quarter hour with one of our library users. He had found a posting for a job on Criagslist, but did not know how to apply. First we walked through getting an email address, and then we went through the reply process on Craigslist.

Other days it has been helping folks find their way through various job application web sites. Yesterday, it was 15 minutes on the phone with someone who was trying to apply through a civil service web site.

Here is what my friend said:

Recently I’ve been helping a group of unemployed adults apply for apprenticeships. Many of these people have been without jobs for years; some are parolees, others simply down on their luck in these recessionary times. They have many strikes against them: criminal records, long breaks in employment, lack of marketable skills. Most of them find the process is like trying to jump onto a speeding conveyor belt. And in fact it is the process that they find daunting, even more than their own personal challenges or lack of qualifications.

Over the past few years the job-seekers’ required kit has gone from simply owning a pen (for filling out applications) to the possession of a resume (required to demonstrate experience) to the ability to understand and manipulate computer applications.

Take a look at how job-seeking works these days:

There are almost no more newspaper help-wanted ads. Job seekers must search the internet for openings and then complete applications online. Most of these applications require applicants to attach documents such as resumes and to submit the whole to whatever firm or public entity is offering the job. The process assumes the following skills and abilities:

1. First, the possession or adequate control of a computer. Occasional availability leaves the person at a distinct disadvantage: it takes hours of searching to find openings, hours more to submit applications, and then the applicant must wait for results, invitations to interview, et cetera. The person forced to use the public library computer or one at a job center has too few opportunities to search and apply and respond.

2. Second, the ability to use a computer and the internet with sufficient skill to make the process work. A large portion of the population have difficulty with keyboarding; they type so slowly as to make application an ordeal, particularly in the case of resumes and cover letters—and this is assuming a fair level of literacy, which with the longer-term unemployed is often not the case.

3. Finally, a high level of patience and the ability to endure frustration. This has to do less with the win/lose nature of job-seeking than it does with the cold, faceless and often maddening character of the internet.

Over the past few years I’ve been involved in teaching word-processing and internet skills. This has meant attempting to transfer some portion of the typical internet skill set to classroom groups. Success or failure seems to be determined by the characteristics of incoming participants much more than their desire or effort.

Successful participants will already be adept at keyboarding skills. Those who enter the class without touch-typing skill will almost certainly fall behind and, if they do complete the course, will not be able to compose text or use the computer at any reasonable level of function.

Successful participants will have a computer at home to practice on; otherwise the learned skills will evaporate within days.

Successful students will have a reason to continue to use and polish their computer skills, be it on a job or just internet surfing.

It goes without saying that illiterate or semi-literate students will fail to come away with anything of value.

Though this is the case, most of the programs existing to help the long-term unemployed merely offer their clients a quick run through computer/internet skill sets, then release them into the broad world to thrash about unaided. What the system calls for is a way to offer employment that doesn’t rely so heavily on skills and abilities that are scarce among potential applicants.

There is much talk about the “digital divide,” but the real problem is that there is and will continue to be a class of people who will never become proficient in computer use, in the way that a percentage of people will never become fully and functionally literate. Teaching computer skills is important but obtaining work is much more so. Rather than attempting to teach a smattering of skills it would be better to provide ongoing services to these job-seekers, including personal guidance through the entire process of obtaining work. To believe that the long-term unemployed can simply vault onto the moving conveyor of the employment machine by themselves is wrong and counterproductive.

Let me repeat: There is much talk about the “digital divide,” but the real problem is that there is and will continue to be a class of people who will never become proficient in computer use, in the way that a percentage of people will never become fully and functionally literate.

This is so true and is redefining what libraries can and will offer, but also makes it more difficult to measure any success (outcomes) which is what so many funders want to know about.

Much food for thought here.

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